For those of us at San Francisco Bay Area tech firms, Hollywood’s fascination with Silicon Valley is odd, to say the least.
When I was growing up, movie heroes were Luke Skywalker, Axel Foley, and Indiana Jones, characters revered for mastering a ubiquitous, metaphysical power; comically defying by-the-book detective work; and surviving python-filled tombs while wearing a perfectly balanced fedora.
How times have changed. Today audiences tune in to reality show “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley” and sitcom “Silicon Valley.” In the last 5 years several movies have centered on heroes who start tech companies. The second feature-length film about Steve Jobs is hitting theaters. And don’t even get me started on The Social Network. Is Zuckerberg Generation Z’s Indy? What is happening?
Apparently tech work is … sexy?
While this might be terrific for geeks everywhere, it’s also created misaligned career expectations. Distilling 3 decades of work into the most exciting 120 minutes (.0000076% of the time) tends to distort reality a little. Chief among these unrealistic hopes? Tech workers spend every moment doing creative things with creative people. And creative means magical. And magic just … happens.
Like innovation, creativity’s become a buzzword. We want to unleash it, foster it, control it. But what is it? And how does advice like “The best ideas come while you’re doing nothing” translate into everyday life? Is everyone simply a movie-montage walk in the park away from genius? [Spoiler alert: no.]
Creativity is boring, and that’s okay
It’s no accident that everyone I informally polled this week said “Bolt of lightning!” when I asked what they associate with creativity. Our tendency to equate creativity with isolated moments is exactly why Hollywood exploits that fantasy repeatedly: real-life creativity is boring. And incredibly difficult.
Creativity’s great lie? It begins and ends with that brilliant flash. Archimedes got into the bathtub, the water rose, he said “Eureka!” and then, as the story goes, he ran, naked and screaming with excitement, down the streets of ancient Syracuse.
But that moment’s the result of creativity. It’s the .001% of life. Archimedes (and millions of his fellow Greeks) had bathed plenty of times. But only Archimedes had spent decades (the other 99.999% of life) immersed in geometrical theorems, priming for his legendary revelation. Something tells me he wasn’t running around naked in the streets that whole time, but he sure was being creative. Creativity is the opposite of outcome. It’s getting into and staying in a solution-seeking mindset (which takes practice, which requires repetition, which can be monotonous), so you can recognize the answer when it comes.
The teams who created Airbnb, Venmo, Spotify battled creative blocks, failure, fatigue to create deceptively simple products that now seem as if they’ve always existed. We take for granted the elegant outcomes of their long creative struggles—which in reality didn’t end with cosmic bangs. But “lightning bolts” get the Hollywood greenlight.
The road to success isn’t entertaining
I enjoy movies as much as anyone, especially ones about the tech industry. Remember when “ER”’s Dr. Carter played a Frisbee-tossing Steve Jobs in Pirates of Silicon Valley? Believe it or not, I honestly enjoyed The Social Network andAntitrust (only because Tim Robbins plays evil Bill Gates), and who doesn’t cringingly love the hacking scene from Swordfish? These all make high-tech into a series of attractively furrowed brows followed by high-fives, craft cocktails, and Hugh Jackman ass-shaking. Rick Howard of Palo Alto Networks put it well inFortune: “A lot of Hollywood falls into the trap that the hacker does something magical and breaks into something [immediately]. In reality, a break-in takes … weeks or months.”
To be fair, it’s hard to know what day-to-day work will be like. While in college, I thought there were 3 professional jobs: doctor, lawyer, consultant. Though I knew what a doctor’s day entailed, I had less idea what lawyers did, and zero grasp of how consultants spent their time. Once I got my computer science degree and started writing code, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. It was … boring. I didn’t know if this was just what work is, or meant I wasn’t suited to programming, after all.
And here’s the problem in Hollywood’s Sili Valley love affair: the candidates we meet are often blind to their warped vision of startup life. They think they’ll be entertained, that success—a given!—won’t take long, that perks are the point. When their jobs turn out to be un-movie-like (You mean I won’t be guzzling Cabernet and chain-smoking while I write code?!), they think it’s the job’s fault. They’re on to the next firm, fancier furniture, flashier parties. They’re suckers. But work isn’t perks. The perks are icing. On top of getting paid. Which is why it’s called a job.
Reality is its own reward
Rewind to my first job, getting bored. I did move on, but I discovered that my secret to success was finding harder work. I worry that candidates who expect jobs to be “fun” will miss just this—the more interesting problems that give chances to grow.
At my second job, rather than completing tasks with no idea how they affected the big picture, I learned that there was a big picture. I got a taste of entrepreneurship, building a business-within-a-business, and liked it. Discovering that context required setting aside preconceived notions, imagining what happened beyond my cube, and making connections. All of which take creative thinking. Also known as work. Ultimately creativity is making ideas real. Having ideas, as Archimedes knew, takes effort. Bringing them to life takes even more.
So while it may be disappointing to discover that life isn’t a movie, that creative ideas don’t come easy (or fully formed, in the foam writing atop that third-wave latte), accepting this frees you to dig in. You can stop pursuing a fantasy and instead get down to business.
For me, that’s meant spending the last 8 years at Location Labs, growing from product manager to marketing VP. Last fall, AVG acquired us for $220 million. Pretty nice finale to the movie of my career. Except it wasn’t a finale, and my career’s not a movie. We all enjoyed champagne and cheering, but what’s exciting for those of us who work in tech every day isn’t the fade to black on a high note. It’s the process, the problems that stump you day in and day out.
Acquisition was just a transition. I still show up, I still struggle, I still have problems to solve. Like: how to #BeCreative. Experience and success don’t make the work of creativity any easier. In fact, most of that work is simply the practice of staying focused when a million distractions—phone, email, “busy work”—call out, usually right when, if you keep your mind on the problem, you might figure out some small, important thing. That small, important thing may lead to another small, important thing, if you can fight through the urge to let up. You’ll never see any of that in a movie about Silicon Valley. Which is just fine with me. And Zuckerberg, too …
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